Earmarking Risk: Relational Investing and Portfolio Choice

Social Forces, 99(3):1086-1112. (w/Rourke O’Brien)


Ordinary individuals are increasingly charged with making investment decisions not only for themselves but also for close others. A child’s college savings account and a spouse’s retirement savings are instances where investing has become unmistakably relational. In this paper, we posit a theory of relational investing that extends Zelizer’s relational perspective from the domain of transactions to that of financial risk-taking. Through two original survey experiments, we demonstrate that (1) individuals are less risky with dollars earmarked for others, (2) risk tolerance varies as a function of for whom the dollars are earmarked, and and (3) labeling accounts for culturally significant life-stage events …

Enacting a rational actor: roboadvisors and the algorithmic performance of ideal types

Economy and Society, 49(4):562-595.


Weber famously invoked “ideal types” as an analytic device with which to measure empirical reality against some hyper-rational fabrication. Case in point: non-professional (lay) investors appear to be the antithesis of rational economic man. They have been cast as less-informed, less-skilled, and less-knowledgeable than professional market practitioners, and with ample evidence that they tend to lose money in the market as a result. This study builds the case that a new class of algorithmic financial advisor, commonly known as “roboadvisors”, enacts lay investors as rational market actors. This is achieved through algorithmic devotion to modern portfolio theory (MPT)…

The Behavioral Economics of Pierre Bourdieu

Sociological Theory, (38) 1: 16-35.

This article builds the argument that Bourdieu’s dispositional theory of practice can help integrate the sociological tradition with three prominent strands of behavioral economics: bounded rationality, prospect theory, and time inconsistency. I make the case that the habitus provides an alternative framework to show how social and mental structure constitute one another, where cognitive tendencies toward irrationality can be either curtailed or amplified based on one’s position in the economic field and a person’s corresponding set of dispositions, ranging from more rational doxic dispositions to irrational allodoxic tendencies. Bridging economic sociology and behavioral economics, this work also bears on issues of persistent financial inequality …

The Active Construction of Passive Investors

Socio-Economic Review, mwz046,

How does algorithmic finance operate in society as it crosses the threshold into the hands of lay investors? This article builds on original ethnographic research into a new class of algorithmic trading programs known as ‘roboadvisors’—inexpensive, automated, digital financial platforms that enable ordinary people to invest very small minimum amounts and that rely to a large extent on passive, index strategies that follow the prescripts of Modern Portfolio Theory. The main argument of the article is that roboadvisors, representing an ethos of ‘low-finance’, are actively constructing passive investors by disciplining them through technologies that embody canonical models of financial economics. Roboadvisors and their algorithms reconfigure their users and objectify them…

The social meaning of financial wealth: Relational accounting in the context of 401(k) retirement accounts

Finance and Society, 5(1): 61-83.


This article draws on and extends Viviana Zelizer’s social meaning of money framework in conjunction with new work in ‘relational accounting’ to suggest a sociological counterpoint, focusing in particular on the social and symbolic meaning attached to individual 401(k) retirement accounts. Following a market downturn, neoclassical and behavioral economics predict various types of behavioral responses, in particular loss aversion – where investors seek to increase risk-taking rather than locking in a sure loss (a loss is more painful to bear than an equivalent gain). A sociological theory that understands the shared meaning of retirement saving would predict something different, a behavior I call durable conservatism. In this article, I show how this concept better explains observed risk behavior in Americans’ 401(k) accounts following the 2002 and 2008 bear markets …

The Socio-Technological Lives of Bitcoin

Theory, Culture, and Society, 36(4), 49–72.


In this essay, I argue that cryptocurrencies and blockchains are important objects of general social science research and thought, but not for their ‘moneyness’ per se. Through a historical sociology of the antecedents and discourse leading up to Bitcoin, I show that it was never meant to be ‘money’ in the economic sense, but rather a solution to a technical puzzle for preventing opportunistic actors from double-spending digital ‘coins,’ as well as a fervent ideology surrounding online privacy and infringement of individual rights in the digital age. Drawing from themes in science and technology studies, I suggest that Bitcoin and other ‘cryptoassets’ are properly socio-technological assemblages that constitute new and important objects of social inquiry that must be understood beyond the myopic context of crypto-money. I conclude by proposing three alternative ontologies for blockchains relevant to economic, political, and social life: as systems of accounting, as organizational forms, and as institutions…